For Babe Ruth, 1922 was decidedly not a banner year. Despite hitting .315 with a .434 on-base percentage and an AL-leading .672 slugging, the Babe had a down year. With an OPS+ of 182, it was, in fact, the only year between 1919 and 1924 that Ruth’s mark dipped below 219. To make matters worse, Ruth matched that down year with an injury-plagued season and a suspension from Commissioner Kennsaw Mountain Landis due to an off-season barnstorming trip that wasn’t approved by Major League Baseball. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.
For his Yankees, 1922 was supposed to be a year of redemption. After losing to the Giants in the 1921 World Series, the 1922 Yanks went 94-60 as they beat out the St. Louis Browns to reach the World Series. For Ruth, the Fall Classic was a disaster. The Giants swept the Yankees, and the high-paid Ruth was the goat. He went just 2 for 17 with one extra-base hit and one run batted in. The press coverage after the world’s series, as it was then called, was brutal.
On October 10, 1922, two days after the end of the Series, The Times eviscerated Ruth:
Opinion was almost unanimous that Ruth has reached the lowest ebb of his career. His failing box office value makes the fat three-year contract which the Yanks gave him last Spring look like a dubious bit of business. The Babe’s failure in the world’s series, it was predicated, will work heavily against him next year.
As Associated Press report that appeared throughout the country predicted Ruth’s departure from the Bronx via a trade. “He was almost a total failure in the world’s series,” the nation learned.
Other sources, as Robert Weintraub notes in his recent book The House That Ruth Built, were equally as brutal. One writer from Baseball Magazine claimed that it was “almost certain Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans.” Ruth was well on his way toward becoming “a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.” Tough words for a tough time.
I recently read Weintraub’s book. It’s on the season that followed Babe’s failures as the Yankees opened an expansive and expensive new ballpark in the Bronx and Ruth tried to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans. (Spoiler Alert: He does, and the Yanks win the 1923 World Series.) For me, though, the book was more of an eye-opener about popular attitudes toward Ruth than it was on the history of Yankee Stadium. Like many fans of the Bombers, I know about the battles between the Giants and Yankees over the Polo Grounds and the history behind the now-demolished old stadium.
Ruth, though, remains today even a mystery. With popular biographies and Hollywood movies, his shadow stretches over the game, and his accomplishments are tremendous. At a time when few players hit home runs, he launched 714 of them. With both his pitching arm and prodigious power, he captured seven World Series rings and reached the Fall Classic 10 times. He forever revolutionized the game.
Yet, the Babe was a controversial figure. He was a philanderer in an age when the press was far more forgiving; he drank a lot; he ate a lot. But to many traditionalists, Ruth was ruining the game. With Ruth’s home runs, the game became a brutalist display of power. Forget the finesse of a slap hitter, the speedy guy who could bunt for a base hit and create a run or the strategies behind scratching across just enough to subdue your opponent. In 1914, when Ruth made his debut, no team in the AL had more than 29 home runs. In 1920, he hit 54 by himself. It’s hard to comprehend just great change.
While reading Weintraub’s book this fall a few weeks after the Yanks’ season ended unceremoniously by the upstart Detroit Tigers, I couldn’t help but think of Alex Rodriguez. The Yanks’ superstar, aging and perhaps faded, was pilloried by the press for striking out in two key situations in Game 5 of the ALDS, and although many Yanks failed to hit during the series, A-Rod drew the brunt of the criticism. He who makes the make money, stands the tallest, is the biggest star attracts the harshest critics.
After the ALDS, the 2011 equivalent of the 1922 baseball press called A-Rod a liability to the Yanks. Has he reached the lowest ebb of his career? Will his failures work against him in the 2012 season? Babe had another 517 home runs left in him, but he was also, in 1922, eight years younger than A-Rod was in 2011.
The baseball press and the game’s fans have always been fickle. What have you done for me lately is our motto, and nothing about it is a new phenomenon. From the Babe to A-Rod with countless others in between, the failures we remember are always only the most recent ones until that big moment — for the Babe, it was his 1923 campaign with an MVP and a ring — makes us forget. And that’s the rebirth of baseball for you. Ain’t it grand?